Fast Food at the Table of the Lord

Well, that's one way to talk about fast food (or in this case, junk food, plus a healthy dose of consumerism!) at the Table of the Lord.

But we have another way, don't we? We may actually serve the usual items—bread and grape juice or wine. The "food" may be regular. But for any number of reasons, our approach to how we celebrate the sacrament as whole is focused on the "fast" part. We feel some compulsion, or under some compulsion, to speed it up and get it over with.

Why fast food at the Table of the Lord?

We have our reasons. But when push comes to shove, let's be honest about the primary reason:

Celebrating communion with our full text takes sooooo... lonnnng.

But does it, really?

From Long to Timeless:
Praying the Great Thanksgiving Well

A group of some of the finest worship scholars in The United Methodist Church met at Don and Jane Saliers' home in Vermont in the summer of 2006 to develop what would become our downloadable resource, Living into the Mystery: A United Methodist Guide for Celebrating Holy Communion. Part of what we were talking about during this gathering (and reflected in the introduction to this resource) was time. But we wanted to do more than just talk about time. We wanted to answer the concern that our main communion liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving in Word and Table I, may be "too long." 

So we ran an experiment. We timed ourselves celebrating it at a reasonable rate, no rushing—and even using the sung responses.

Guess what? The total time was four minutes.

We re-ran the experiment.

Same thing.

The whole Great Thanksgiving, with sung responses, in four minutes.

That is on the low end of the length a congregation stands (or sits) to sing the average hymn. It's way less than the length of a sermon. Or the typical worship set in contemporary worship. It's shorter than the average pastoral prayer. It's also shorter than announcements, children's moments, or prayer request times in congregations that do these.

Yet, time after time, it's the Great Thanksgiving that becomes the candidate to be shortened.


Maybe it's not because it IS longer.

Maybe it's because it SEEMS longer.

Why? A number of recent studies of brain function and time perception have begun to suggest some reasons. Basically, the perception of time appears to relate to the speed at which memory is being encoded by the brain. When the brain, body and emotions are more fully engaged, the hippocampus (a region of the brain that looks sort of like a seahorse and is especially important for memory formation) tends to encode more memories with less latency, so time seems to move more swiftly. If there is less going on, less body motion and less at stake emotionally, the brain encodes less, and time seems to slow down. However, if something frightening or disorienting happens, such as falling from a great height, or being just about to crash the vehicle you are driving, time seems to stretch out. Why? The hippocampus seems to kick into overdrive and you record way faster than usual. When you play back the memory in "real time" it seems stretched out, just like playing back the footage from a high-speed camera in real time.

Put in more common terms, time flies when you're having fun. Time slows down when you're bored. And time stretches when your world seems to be ending or at least going seriously awry.

Of course, it's not time itself doing any of these things, but your perception of time.

Which brings us back to why the Great Thanksgiving can seem longer than a hymn that is actually longer.

It comes down to boredom.

A good hymn or song engages the body in making and sensing vibrations and possibly dancing or keeping beat. The melody evokes emotional responses and feelings. And, though probably least significant of all, the language centers of the brain help you form and make cognitive sense of the words. Singing is a memory bandwidth hog! Which means time can seem to move more quickly (or at least less slowly) when you sing.

What about the Great Thanksgiving? It all depends on how it is performed!

What are you are presider doing with your body? Do you look like a robot? Or a limp noodle? Or do your posture and motions reflect your competence to lead the assembly in this prayer? Body language matters maybe most of all!

Where are your eyes? In a book? Looking all over? Or focused on each moment, rapt in wonder, love and praise?

What are you doing with your voice? Reading through the text rapidly? Or praying these words intently? Stumbling around, or moving with the cadences of grace?

What is the pacing?  Do you say every part of the prayer at the same rate? Or do some parts move more swiftly, while others move more slowly, drawing attention to more dramatic moments, such as the build-up to the great Amen that concludes the prayer?

Where is the emotion? Do you pray with a flat affect? Or, just as problematic, are you "hamming it up"? Or does what you are praying inform the emotion with which you pray it and lead others?

And what is the congregation doing? Are they just sitting there? Or even just standing or kneeling there? Or are they consciously and bodily engaged, perhaps joining you as presider in the same postures of prayer?

How and how often are the congregation involved in praying this prayer during the prayer? Do you only say the words, or do you and they also sing them? Do you as a presider "hog" the limelight, praying in long monologue (and maybe even monotone!)  while the congregation watches? Or do you see and embody your role as prompting their sacrifice of praise and thankgiving? The Great Thanksgiving is primarily their prayer, and your role is to lead them to pray it.

The point of all of this?  You and your congregation can make the Great Thanksgiving feel slow, or you can make it feel timeless—either outcome in the same four minutes!

The solution is not to cut it short or rush through it! The solution is to pray it better and help your congregation do the same!

From Awfully Slow to Awe-Filled:
Sharing the Bread and Cup

Okay, we've all been there. The Great Thankgiving may have been a wonderful experience—timeless, even! There was a strong sense of the presence of the Spirit moving in your midst as you prayed. And then—

First, there may be another word of assurance that in the United Methodist Church everyone can receive who wants to. We're friendly that way.

Then, there's often some sort of complicated explanation about which aisle you come down, and how to do intinction, or where you can get your little cups, and where to put them afterward, and...

And then, to add insult to all this ritual injury (I mean really, to go from a high point at the fraction to these mundane and unnecessary explanations?) there are the lines. 

Long lines. 

Sure the choir may sing something. Yes, there may be something for you to sing, too. But what really can take forever in a service of Holy Communion is waiting to receive the bread and cup.

There's a very, very simple solution to this.

First, no more "second" invitations. If you did the invitation to the Table prior to the Confession and Peace, you've done the invitation. Any more is redundant. 

Second, no more explanations. Don't spoil these holy moments with too many words. Just say, "Come," or even simply gesture in silence. You can print more elaborate instructions in the bulletin if you must. For now, just get folks moving to or around the Table. 

And as you get them moving, don't make them wait in long lines. Create more stations. If you have two stations, adding a third increases the rate of receiving by 50 percent, and you haven't rushed or "herded" anyone at all. In fact, if you don't have a time problem now, adding more stations means you actually give people more time to taste, see, and give thanks for the goodness of the Lord in the sacrament without having added a single minute to the service.  You might even be able to free up enough time to add a station for healing prayer, or a set of prayer station with a guided meditations for persons to visit on their way back to their seats.

And again—it will have taken no more time at all.

But even if it does, time spent like this seems not awfully slow, but awe-filled.

Fast food at the Table of the Lord? 

If you rush people, they'll feel rushed. If you bore people, they'll feel bored. If you dread celebrating, they will too.

But if you love the Lord and help the congregation love the Lord in praying and receiving around the Table, they'll feel love-- and loved! And you can do that in nearly the same amount of actual time. Maybe even less, depending on the number of stations you offer.

I've always found snacks a poor substitute for a meal, and fast food a poor substitute for a home-cooked dinner.

What if...

What if we remembered that here at Christ's table, his greatest desire is truly to feed us, his flock, and welcome us home?


This post is reprinted with permission from the author's blog. © 2011 General Board of Discipleship

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